The Gospels and Anti-Semitism

Context of a Bitter Family Quarrel

I said that the pope was grateful for the achievements of the post-Vatican II period, which had cleared out the accumulated rubbish of centuries, and now wanted to move the conversation to a new, theological level.

The rabbi seemed uncomfortable. I asked whether I had just heard alarm bells going off in his mind; he smiled and said that I had. Why, I asked. Because, he replied, the kind of theologically enriched dialogue John Paul II envisioned was impossible. When I asked why that was the case, he replied, without rancor, “Because your sacred text is anti-Semitic.”

The obvious next question was what that meant, and the rabbi, again without rancor, cited the Gospel of John and its references to “the Jews” in their confrontation with Jesus. I replied that contemporary biblical scholarship had taught us that parts of the gospel accounts were formulated in the polemical context of a bitter family quarrel, a deep and passionate disagreement that eventually led to the “parting of the ways” between what became Christianity and what became rabbinic Judaism. Moreover, I suggested, the phrase “the Jews” in John's Gospel couldn't be read as if this were the minutes of a 1928 blackballing in an upscale New York men's club.

Disturbing Challenge to His Own People

The rabbi seemed struck by this way of putting it, but then said that, while he accepted what I just reported, surely this was not the way the majority of Catholics read the New Testament. I assured him that, when the people of my parish heard “the Jews” during the Good Friday liturgy, they weren't hearing what he feared they heard. The rabbi seemed intrigued, if not completely persuaded, and the conversation moved on to other matters.

I've thought about this exchange a lot recently, because some of the more intemperate reactions to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ suggest that my Jerusalem interlocutor's fears were not idiosyncratic. Were I to meet the Jerusalem rabbi again, I'd suggest that he — and indeed everyone who shares his fears — take the trouble to read a small book by the Anglican biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus.

In The Challenge of Jesus, Wright explains that Jesus conducted His ministry at a time of greatly heightened messianic expectation in the Roman-occupied Holy Land. The expectation was not of an imminent end of the world, but of a liberation of the Jewish people from their bondage. Some expected this liberation to come through a purified Temple cult; others, through a rigorous observance of the Mosaic law. Jesus's proclamation of a different kind of liberation — one that was breaking into history right now through His message, His gathering of disciples, His distinctive way of living Israel's faith, and, ultimately, Hhimself — was a profoundly disturbing challenge to some among His people. To recognize that Jesus, a Jew, was perceived as a threat, and in some instances a mortal threat, by some of His people is not to indulge in anti-Semitism; it's to recognize historical fact.

Advancing the Dialogue

The settled teaching of the Catholic Church — which does not date from the Second Vatican Council but was vigorously expressed by, among others, the 16th-century Council of Trent — is that the sinfulness of all humanity was the cause of the death of Christ. Vatican II made a related, if more specific, point by insisting that the Jewish people could not be held corporately responsible for the death of Christ; the fact that some Christians had held this was a defect of their faith, not an expression of core Christian conviction.

An extraordinary number of people are talking about the meaning of the death of Jesus of Nazareth these days. Jews and Christians alike might read Dr. Wright's book as a primer for continuing the conversation in a way that advances, rather than retards, the Jewish-Christian dialogue.

George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. His latest book is Letters to a Young Catholic.

This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.

Help support Catholic Exchange and prepare yourself to discuss the real historical Jesus by reading the book that George Weigel recommends, The Challenge of Jesus, now available in our online store.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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